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Preparing for the challenges ahead: practical applications of futures research.

Many people do nothing about the future. After all, the future will occur momentarily, whether they plan for it, benefit from it, or are surprised by it. People's expectations about the future, however, often run to extremes. For example, the archetypal 1950s' concept of the year 2000 consisted of flying machines in every garage and robots as servants. Yet, today's advances in the medical and computer fields have transcended anything imagined a few decades ago.


Because of the reactive nature inherent in the daily workings of their profession, law enforcement officials also tend not to overly concern themselves about the future. After all, most law enforcement efforts, as well as training, focus on responding to existing threats to the public's safety. Even those law enforcement professionals concerned about the future and futures research (2) usually concentrate on the next budget year, rather than on a 5- or 10-year strategic plan for their agencies.


But, the future is here and probably changing faster than anyone can envision. Many people can remember a world without automated teller machines or the ubiquitous cell phone, but these items, not to mention computers, have changed the world to the point that society no longer can function the way it did in the past. To this end, law enforcement professionals must understand the importance of futures research. To help illustrate this, the authors present three scenarios that depict probable, possible, and preferred outcomes of the future. Each scenario then poses a question that all law enforcement agencies should answer based upon their preparedness to handle similar situations.


Probable scenario: A major terrorist attack on American soil resulted in law enforcement agencies scrambling to exchange information and intelligence. Unfortunately, the agencies found most of that information incompatible and inaccessible. How many agencies are prepared for a present, and now obvious, danger?


Possible scenario: During roll call on the swing shift, officers learned that another homicide occurred south of Main Street, so additional patrols must cover the area. They heard about daytime burglaries increasing near the high school, but the day shift can handle those. They find out that the group of homeless people that suddenly appeared in the city has begun camping under a bridge, so more patrols must focus on that location. Finally, they learned that city council, once again, has denied the chief's request for more personnel to fight the growing crime problem. Although happy with all of the overtime, the patrol officers recognized that they can accomplish only so much with limited personnel and funds. How many agencies are prepared only for business as usual?

Preferred scenario: A chief's journal entry on a typical Sunday night showed that he logged onto the department's network from home and scanned the activities of the weekend, just in case the mayor should ask about pending cases or potential risks to the city at their breakfast meeting Monday. Luckily for the chief, the system, organized in order of importance, enabled him to review the incidents that the media had accessed previously. He read about the latest report of "cyber road rage," where the suspect, incensed at a string of e-mails on a list serve, hacked into another citizen's personal computer through a broadband Internet hookup. This effectively assaulted the victim's computer and financial records. The department's system mined and gathered information from the Internet, based on keywords that the chief input, and organized the data in a short, abridged format. The last item that the chief saw was a bulletin about the latest organized crime ring stealing stored harvested human organs and selling them on the black market. This meant that people who can afford it and need transplants would have quicker access to these life-saving measures than those waiting on the medically generated priority list. How many agencies are prepared for such future challenges?



The remedy to the questions posed by these scenarios lies in futures research and in preparing law enforcement officers to have the capacity not only to manage change but also to thrive on it. A world exists beyond traditional police exercises of annual budgeting, strategic planning for 3- to 5-year periods, and critical incident debriefings. Futures research leads to the examination of the probable, possible, and preferable outcomes of the future and provides a basis for decision making today that will lead to a preferable future.

Despite working in a dynamic environment, law enforcement professionals traditionally resist change, particularly organizational change. At a time when most of society struggles to keep pace with changes in technological and demographic areas, crucial institutions, such as law enforcement, must prepare for change not only to simply tolerate it but also to view it as an opportunity to make future communities safe. "Futures research offers both philosophical and methodological tools to analyze, forecast, and plan in ways rarely seen in policing in the past." (3) To this end, agencies can employ these techniques of futures research to help them determine organizational capacity, apply technologies, develop potential officers, identify and obtain necessary resources, and explore the profession's direction.

Determining Organizational Capacity

Forecasting can be as simple as analyzing emerging trends and thinking about their potential outcomes. Law enforcement organizations are surrounded by data sources that readily feed into trend analysis. In their primary mission to preserve life, protect property, and prevent crime, law enforcement agencies rely heavily on information management, while the resultant data provide a rich basis for trend analysis. Law enforcement administrators probably can identify interested members of their agencies who enjoy planning, demonstrate creativity, and understand emerging technologies. Whether individually or in teams, such organizational resources can help all members of an agency broaden their views of the future. Some future-forecasting methods call on topical "experts" to compare their ideas on what may lie ahead. In law enforcement organizations, numerous such experts daily participate in a dynamic environment to carry out the police mission.

Applying Technologies

Overall, government and law enforcement seem to lag behind the private sector in both the use of technologies and the development of expertise in such applications. A common theme among members of the Society of Police Futurists International (4) is the fear that the law enforcement profession will never "catch up" with the necessary computer-based investigative skills to keep pace with criminals who use computer technology. But, technology involves much more than using computers to hack into systems or commit identity theft. Whether through nanotechnology, augmented reality, or biometrics, criminals always will attempt to steal, misuse, exploit, or employ technologies as an instrument of their crimes. If law enforcement does not proactively anticipate such illicit uses, the victims of these crimes eventually will rely on private sources of relief, minimizing the role of police. When contemplating the impact that a single technology, such as DNA analysis, has played in combating lawlessness, it almost becomes unimaginable what forensic and investigative tools will emerge from the explosion in technology in the immediate future. Policing, therefore, must insert itself at the beginning of the creative processes that develop new products and techniques, instead of relying on the hand-me-down obsolescence from military and private sector sources.

Developing Potential Officers

By using forecasting and futures research methods, or even by simply scanning the literature of futurists, law enforcement administrators can develop profiles of the skills needed by officers of the future. Administrators who watch trends to consider future profiles can contemplate how best to integrate testing and recruitment that will attract candidates most likely to fulfill the skill set needed. The fact that an agency considers trends and forecasts could represent a useful recruitment tool in a time of tight competition for the limited applicant pool. Perhaps as important as selecting the right future officers, helping existing officers cope with the increasing pace of change ranks as a necessity if law enforcement organizations are to prove effective in the future. Understanding where change may take them will help law enforcement leaders illuminate the pathways of change for their officers into the future.

Identifying and Obtaining Necessary Resources

Most governmental budget processes operate 1 to 2 years ahead, with some potential 5-year capital expenditure plans included. New human resources often are created in reaction to changes in the local environment, and, with the lag time to implement trained personnel, agencies always must play "catch up." Futures research may help law enforcement leaders identify what they will need in the future. It also may make a case for them proactively lining up those resources so that these leaders can contribute to the preferred outcomes, rather than reacting to the sudden realities.

Exploring the Profession's Direction

One of the most often discussed items within the law enforcement community centers on where the profession is headed. What will transcend its current efforts? In short, what comes after community policing? Futures research may constitute the only hope to predict with any degree of accuracy what is coming, rather than to guess haphazardly and only hope for something close to a correct assessment. "While not claiming to be predictive, futures research can develop intelligent forecasts concerning what is possible while indicating strategies for working toward desired goals. In a time of accelerating change, these methodologies can help ... managers to cope successfully with uncertainly and move confidently into tomorrow." (5)


"My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there." (6) These words provide strong evidence of the importance of futures research. By examining a variety of alternative outcomes to future situations, people can more readily see the consequences of their decisions.

Futures research can aid those facing the daunting task of trying to accurately predict how to prepare for the challenges that lie ahead in today's ever-changing and increasingly fast-paced world.

No one is immune to these challenges, particularly those in the law enforcement profession. Advances in technology have created enormous changes in the types of crime perpetrated against society and in the way that law enforcement agencies must respond to protect their communities. Officers and administrators alike must prepare for even more diverse threats to the public's safety, many from yet-to-be invented sources. But, by planning for the risks, as well as the benefits, of modern advances, the law enforcement community can help ensure that those seeking a peaceful existence will triumph.


(1) Retrieved on February 19, 2003, from

(2) "Futures research encompasses both an evolving philosophy and a range of techniques. Its primary objective is to assist decision makers to understand better the potential consequences of present and future decisions by developing images of alternative futures. It has strong and sound historical origins in sociology, more recently in political science, and in the other social sciences. It has independent origins also in corporate and institutional planning, in strategic and long-range planning, and has significant contemporary roots in government, particularly in national security. Successful practice of futures research requires contributions both from established academic disciplines and from such cross-disciplinary fields as technology assessment, policy analysis, operations research, issues management, and many more." For additional information, see World Future Society, Futures Research Quarterly; retrieved on February 3, 2002, from

(3) The Society of Police Futurists International; retrieved on February 3, 2002, from

(4) "The Society of Police Futurists International (PFI) is an organization of law enforcement practitioners, educators, researchers, private security specialists, technology experts, and other professionals dedicated to improving criminal and social justice through the professionalization of policing. Futures research (long-range planning and forecasting) is the pivotal discipline that constitutes the philosophical underpinnings of PFI"; retrieved on February 3, 2002, from

(5) Darlene E. Weingand, "Futures Research Methodologies: Linking Today's Decisions with Tomorrow's Possibilities," in 61st IFLA General Conference Proceedings, August 20-25, 1995; retrieved on February 3, 2003, from

(6) Charles F. Kettering, a well-known inventor, held over 200 patents; retrieved on February 3, 2003, from

RELATED ARTICLE: I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.

--Albert Einstein (1)

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Article Details
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Author:Myers, Richard
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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